This interview was originally conducted for inclusion in our “Fluidity” theme. Some minor delays and life circumstances kept it in the works, but on the back burner for awhile. After much anticipation, here it is…
Eric Freeman is a Re-recording Mixer for Disney TV Animation. To date, he has received seven Daytime Emmy Awards and seven MPSE Golden Reel Awards. His credits include: Adventure Time, The Batman, DuckTales, The Lion Guard, Samurai Jack, and Spongebob Squarepants.
DS: Hi Eric, nice of you to join us. The topic for the month is “fluidity,” but before we get started, can you tell us a little about yourself and how you got your start in the industry?
EF: I originally wanted to be a recording engineer. I hoped to record and mix records for all types of music, so I enrolled at a local sound school. While the courses were very immersive, it was the hands-on labs that really got me excited. I’ve always been the kind of person to toss away the manual and just dig-in to what I wanted to learn and figure it out on my own.
While in school, my day job was as a Production Assistant at Hyperion Animation. I worked in the Recording and Post Departments on several shows in the day, while at night, I interned at a music studio in Hollywood. Three to four nights a week for about six months, I was doing the stuff that all interns at the time were supposed to do: copy tapes, get food, clean toilets, set-up and tear down mics, and be a general help to the engineers and office staff.
After a year, I was bumped up to Post-Production Supervisor and started attending spotting sessions, previews, and mixes at several studios around town, where I was able to spend a lot of time with editors and mixers. This was my “aha” moment. “I get to watch TV, make funny noises, AND get paid for it?” It didn’t hurt that there were many more opportunities in Post than there were in music.
I ended up becoming friendly with one of my vendors, Tim Borquez, who at the time was the lead Re-recording mixer and Supervising Sound Editor at Horta Editorial. I met with him one day, showed him my resume, went over my limited audio background and said to him, “I want to do this, I want to become a sound editor.” Tim said that he would give me a shot. He said there was a night shift spot available and he was going to start me at cutting cartoon dialogue.
After about a year of editing dialogue, I transitioned to sound effects editorial. Shortly thereafter, Tim started his own post-sound company, Hacienda Post, and I joined him. He trained me to become a Re-recording mixer and I am forever grateful that he did. I was with Hacienda for fourteen years.
DS: Tell us about where you are working currently.
EF: I am the in-house Mixer/Supervising Sound Editor for Disney TV animation. Currently, I’m mixing five series along with whatever pilots, shorts, and special projects they send my way.
DS: Getting into the topic of fluidity, what are some things creatively speaking that can help you to make a mix sound smooth and fluid?
EF: In reference to cartoons or in general?
DS: In general, but if you want to make it about cartoons, go ahead.
EF: Organization. Organization. Organization. Dialogue is king, so having organized dialogue tracks is important. Since I’m dealing with animation, noise and sound quality are rarely issues. Having the dialogue laid out appropriately can make all the difference when mixing. Characters on their own tracks, perspective and pan splits, and split tracks for futzed dialogue effects make the dialogue mix process so much smoother. Having alternate takes and un-processed takes on inactive or hidden tracks is quite helpful as well. It’s much easier for me to pull a line right then and there on the mix stage.
DS: What do you need from sound effects editors to keep your mix sounding smooth or fluid?
EF: Just because it’s working in the edit room, doesn’t mean it will translate to the Stage.
Track organization is key, along with smart sound choices. In my experience, editors tend to want to make everything as big as possible. I can be guilty of this, too. At the mix stage, I need to make choices: go through layers of sound effects, choose what works, what doesn’t, losing sounds and sometimes looking for new sounds as I pre-dub. Things need to be simplified and clean.
DS: So would the right choice of backgrounds help to keep the mix sounding fluid?
EF: Yes, especially in an animation environment where we begin with no sound at all. Multi-layered background sound-effects helps put the dialogue/characters “into” the show.
DS: What advice can you give sound effects editors or dialogue editors to make your job easier?
EF: I look to track organization. When a project gets to the mix stage, I don’t have an infinite amount of time (or tracks) to start digging through elements. The session has got to be really well thought out ahead of time. I’m almost always mixing on my own, and only have one system to handle dialogue, music, sound effects, and final printmasters, so track space is definitely at a premium.
DS: Do you give the editors a template or do the editors give you their edit sessions and you incorporate those into your template?
EF: At the start of a project I’ll meet with the supervisor and we’ll workout a template. We’ll talk about the particular needs for the show and decide on an appropriate amount of tracks and desired layout. We try to nail it down by the first few mixes.
DS: Do you find that your template is always evolving, putting in new plugins, etc?
EF: Different shows have different needs so I will adapt my template and make it work for that specific show. Adding a group of tracks here and there, changing around VCAs, or experimenting with new plug-ins (if the show calls for it); in other words, whatever I can do to not impede my established workflow.
DS: What are some things that can hurt a mix or make it not sound smooth or fluid?
EF: Poorly edited dialogue and over-built sound design can certainly impact the fluidity of a mix. In the case of animation dialogue, for example, characters bouncing around to different tracks, words and breaths cut-off, pops, ticks, and improper perspective/pan/futz splits can impact the fluidity of the sound.
DS: Is there ever a time when you do not want the mix to sound smooth or fluid?
EF: If it’s used for creative effect, absolutely. A director may ask me to severely distort some dialogue or over-process some sound effects, or intentionally cut-off music cues to help emphasize story points. I’d say it’s a quite common request.
DS: Switching gears a little, let’s talk a little bit about fluidity in workflow. Can you describe your workflow? What is your workflow like? How do you lay out a session, etc? How do you maintain a smooth and fluid workflow?
EF: I typically have one full day to mix a 23-minute episode. I spend the first couple of hours getting the dialogue and music balanced and the rest is spent with sound effects, which is where the major choices begin. For example, just because a sound effect is used in a specific place, it doesn’t mean that it needs to be played. If the sound effect isn’t working with the music, or it’s on top of the dialogue, or if I feel the music is supporting the on-screen actions more effectively, then I don’t need the sound effect. I’ll make those choices even before the director sees it at our afternoon playback. I want to make the mix as comfortable to listen to as possible before they get in the room, so they’re not overwhelmed with too much playing on top of each other at the same moment.
DS: Can you tell us how you lay out a session for your workflow?
EF: Nearly every show includes well over 100 tracks, so I like to work in snapshots. What I like to call “snapshots” are Pro Tools memory locations set to showing/hiding particular tracks and setting custom track heights. There’s a dialogue and music snapshot, showing only their respective tracks, as well as default and show-specific reverbs, and several VCAs. I have one dialogue VCA and multiple music and vocal VCAs, depending on how much music is provided. I often have dozens of music tracks for one 23-minute episode. Most of the productions I mix request that the individual instruments for all the cues are split out onto their own stems. It comes in quite handy to have that much control of the music. The directors definitely appreciate having the ability to tinker even further with the music now that they can hear it all in proper context.
For my sound effects snapshot, I get a little more detailed when laying out VCAs. I have VCAs for Hard FX, BGa, BGb, feet, pats/grabs, swishes, specific ambiences, and usually an extra VCA for any special tracks that are specific for that show. For example, all the unique cars in Mickey and the Roadster Racers get their own tracks and VCA.
DS: Just to clarify, is it safe to say that Backgrounds are things that you would want in a multi-channel format and ambiences are like backgrounds, but you want them in mono so you can pan them around?
EF: In my sessions, backgrounds and ambiences are two different things. Backgrounds would be elements like: wind, air, room tone, birds, and traffic, to name a few. Ambiences are background elements that get a little more specific and need a bit more attention, things like: crowds, fire, rain, and thunder. I prefer to have a blend of stereo and mono for both sets of tracks. The combination of tracks isn’t necessarily for panning (though it is convenient), but I feel that having the environments spread over all the channels makes the overall atmosphere more believable.
DS: Is there anything that sound effects editors or dialogue editors can do to help keep your workflow smooth and fluid? How can they make your life easier?
EF: Because sound effects can get a bit unwieldy, I request that the editors work in banks of 24. I mix with a 24-fader D-command and it is extremely efficient to have their sound design on a single layer. As a result, it’s easier for me to have all the elements for an explosion on tracks 19-24, rather than on 23-28. The less banking I need to do to balance a scene, the more efficiently I can work.
DS: So what you’re saying is, you need everything to fit on one layer for your given board for each group of sounds.
EF: Yes. For the shows that I work on, sounds could easily fit on one layer. As long as those can be smartly laid out in banks of 24, life is good.
DS: What about communication with a client while mixing? Any tips to successful interaction with a director or producer while still keeping the mix moving forward? This is more like fluidity in keeping your mix moving forward.
EF: Stay positive, be patient, and listen. Mix sessions can get extremely overwhelming. I went from editing in a dark room by myself to managing large rooms of people who all have a vested interest in what I’m helping to produce. It’s important to build a rapport with producers. You want them to trust your expertise and work with you again and again. It’s also important to note that the directors and producers have a vision that you, as a mixer, are trying to fulfill. They’ve been living with this project for months (or even years) and we want to work together as a team to fulfill that vision.
DS: Flipping it around. Any advice to help people, directors and producers, to communicate better with their re-recording mixer?
EF: Trust your mixer. Their instincts have been honed over years of experience. Mixers are often coming to a project with fresh ears and can offer a different perspective, particularly when looking at the big picture.
DS: Right, one thing that I’ve thought about from the projects that I’ve worked on or been around is that sometimes it’s better to just trust at a certain point, that the engineer does this for a living and has an idea how it should sound, and they’re trying to make this the best project that they possibly can.
EF: That’s the idea. It would be great if it was instant, but gaining the producers trust in my expertise and judgment comes with time.
DS: Are there any common things that can trip up a re-recording mixer’s workflow?
EF: The picture changes a lot while working in animation, from editorial conforms to new animation retakes that can completely change the action on screen. It’s certainly not uncommon to get retakes during a mix. Depending on how extensive the changes in the retakes are, we can be stopped for several minutes while I re-cut a scene. If it looks like we will be down for while, I’ll send it back to the editor and we move on.
DS: Do you have any advice for up and coming re-recording mixers for establishing their workflow? For mixing in general?
EF: Practice, practice, practice. Do someone’s independent movie, answer a Craigslist ad and get your free Subway tuna. If possible, get an internship and learn from very best mixers you can find. Eventually you build up some kind of reel to show someone who can get you that paying gig. Just keep practicing.
DS: I think that’s about it. Is there anything else that you would like to add?
EF: Up is louder.